A Few Lessons from Piano Pedagogy

Today’s post isn’t very long, but I’ve got to write something so here it is. During my time researching piano pedagogy, I’ve encountered practical advice that I’ve never seen elsewhere but which I’m sure would apply to other fields. Here are the top three that stood out to me over the years.

First: Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. If you are practicing a section of music and you keep making the same mistakes, mindlessly playing it over and over again will not magically fix the mistakes. Instead, you are going to learn the mistakes and get very good at making them. It’s better to isolate the problem areas, practice them slowly without mistakes, and avoid mindless repetition.

Second: Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong. If you are practicing a section and get it right on the hundredth try, you can’t just stop for the day. So far you have played it wrong ninety-nine times and right once. Which version do you think your muscle memory is going to remember tomorrow? Practice it until you’ve played it right at least as many times as you’ve played it wrong.

Third: Running is not the same as walking very fast. A common technique for increasing the speed at which you can play a passage is to start playing it very slowly, increasing the tempo a small amount each time you become comfortable playing it at the current tempo. However, this is not always guaranteed to work. There may come a point where you hit a wall; you can no longer increase the speed, no matter how hard you try. This is because the hand motions you need to use to play the piece fast are not the same hand motions that come naturally when playing the piece slowly. It’s like trying to run by speed-walking faster and faster. The solution is to play it fast, ignoring accuracy, and figure out the required hand motions, then play those hand motions, slowed down, rather than the natural hand motions you had been playing before.

On Note-taking

I used to read a lot. When I was little, I would stay up past my bedtime and hide under the covers with a book in one hand and a flashlight in the other, hoping my parents wouldn’t notice until I had finished another chapter. In college, I estimated that I was reading roughly one million words of fiction every month, and that’s excluding what I read online. But over the past decade I have pretty much stopped reading entirely.

Somehow, I internalized the idea that I need to take notes on everything I read. My thought process went something like this: If I don’t take notes, then I’m just wasting my time. I will have nothing to show for my time spent reading; it will be as if I had read nothing at all. I want to be a writer, don’t I? What if, in the future, I write something that leans heavily on the book I’m reading right now? I don’t want to have to read it again, do I? That would defeat the entire point! Better summarize the whole book in brilliantly compact shorthand so a decade from now I can just reread my notes rather than having to reread the book.

If taking notes were easy, this wouldn’t be so bad. But I found note-taking to be a frustrating and emotionally draining task. I could never know what information should go in my notes and what I should just ignore, so I felt compelled to record everything, just in case. Who knows what will be relevant in the future? This slowed my reading to a crawl. So, to avoid the guilt of reading without taking notes, I simply avoided reading altogether.

At first, I thought this was the fault of my note-taking system. I had read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, but maybe I needed to use something more structured and sophisticated? I looked into Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system via Sonke Ahren’s How to Take Smart Notes, tried out Roam Research, and generally wasted a lot of time.

These resources covered how to add notes to the system, and how to utilize the notes once they were in the system, and their methods seemed interesting… but they never seemed to address what I considered to be the most pressing, important question: How do you decide what information to record in the first place? Nobody mentioned this at all, even though it was at the heart of my problem!

I think I have now discovered what my problem was. I always assumed that the point of note-taking was to stockpile and organize facts and quotations that could be used, someday, as fodder for a project. Any time you read anything, you would add to this stockpile. This is, of course, unworkable in practice. The problem is that I had no goal in mind for my notes. Without something to limit my scope and direct my attention, there was no way to tell what was relevant, so every sentence was fair game. This is why I found taking notes to be such a monumental, suffocating task.

Luhmann’s Zettelkasten was not filled with notes on everything he ever read. It was specifically for his work in sociology, and when he put notes into the system he already knew how they related to the projects he was working on and how they may someday be used. He wasn’t just stuffing any old fact into the system.

Therefore, unless I am reading something for a specific project that I have in mind, there’s no reason to take notes. And there’s definitely no reason to take notes if I’m reading for pleasure. A review, perhaps, but not notes. I believe this is the correct stance, but I still feel in my gut like I’m rationalizing—like I’m trying to weasel out of the hard work of honest reading. It will take time for me to correct my gut feelings, but at least I have discovered where those gut feelings come from and why they’re maladaptive.

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (apocryphal)

Hello, World!

Welcome to my blog! I have wanted to cultivate the habit of writing for a long time—one of life’s greatest pleasures is learning a new way of seeing the world and sharing that view with other people. Plus, writing is a powerful tool for organizing and understanding one’s own thoughts and generating new ideas. Despite this, I have found writing to be an incredibly frustrating and unsatisfying task. I have tried to articulate the possible problems, and I came up with several.

First, I feel on a gut level that I shouldn’t write about something unless I’m an expert. If I make a false statement, then all I’ve done is spread misinformation and opened myself up to the humiliation of being wrong in public. The second-hand embarrassment of watching someone else mess up is nothing compared to the mortification of realizing I’ve messed up publicly myself. And even if I am right, it still feels presumptuous to lecture others without any credentials.

Second, even if I manage to avoid messing up, my writing will never be as good as the best writing available on the subject. There’s no reason for you to read my blog when you could read a book by an expert instead; they can explain the subject better than I ever could. All blogging can do is add more noise that everyone has to sift through to find the signal. Ninety percent of the internet is crap—why should I pile more on?

As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes. — Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, 1755

Third, I feel strongly that in order to make a blog worth the reader’s time, the content must be novel. But it’s impossible to be consistently new and brilliant, and if my content is truly novel then I can’t make sure it’s right (see the first point). This means that I reject ninety-nine ideas out of a hundred, and the few ideas I do find worth writing down I find so difficult to write about that I give up.

Fourth, I am a perfectionist and I wasn’t satisfied with anything I wrote from a purely mechanical point of view. No idea was explained properly, no paragraph well-written enough, no sentence structure exactly right. I spent months working on an article about the origins of the twelve-tone equally tempered scale and gave up when I realized I had basically rewritten three chapters of an introductory physics textbook because I thought explaining sound from first principles was a necessary prerequisite.

These beliefs set the bar for writing unattainably high, but I could not shake them. In the original version of this post, I wrote that I would just “attempt to rebel against my gut and write about things despite my lack of qualifications”. Predictably, this did not get my anywhere. But after articulating the above points, I realized that I have been thinking about writing wrong the whole time. (See? Writing does improve thinking!)

I realized that I have always unconsciously equated writing with teaching. I, the writer, have information that I would like to impart to you, the reader. By making my writing public, I am asserting that I am a trustworthy source—a domain expert—and that you should trust me. To write otherwise would be presumptuous and irresponsible. If my claims are false, then I have misled you and I should be called out on it so I don’t mislead others. And if my writing isn’t the best, I’m basically tricking you and wasting your time.

But very little writing is actually like this—in fact, it really only applies to writing textbooks, scientific papers, and the like. The best blogs are not a series of Wikipedia entries teaching the reader—they’re more like a record of the author’s thought processes and impressions as they react to and digest information. A blog doesn’t even need to make any claims at all; you don’t have to say “this is how it is”, you can just say “this is how it seems to me”. I knew, on some level, that this was true. But subconsciously I viewed writing a blog exactly like writing a textbook, with all the responsibility to the reader that entails.

I think I have dissolved the first through third problems (the fourth remains—you don’t want to know how long it took me to write this). I don’t have any specific plans for this blog; there is no topic or consistent theme. I expect I will post mostly book reviews and short sketches of essays for the foreseeable future. I expect my writing style to be self-absorbed and pretentious, my choice of topics incoherent, and my hiatuses frequent. But I want to try writing one post per week, even if I think what I have really sucks.